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Boris Johnson has announced he is shutting the department for international development (DfID) and merging it with the Foreign Office.
Speaking in the Commons on Tuesday, the prime minister said the new department would be named the foreign, commonwealth and development office.
DfID, which is responsible for overseas aid, was created by Tony Blair’s government in 1997.
Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, will lead the newly merged department.
Anne-Marie Trevelyan, the development secretary, told HuffPost UK she would be “retired” from her job in September.
Johnson said today’s move “will unite our aid with our diplomacy and bring together our international effort”.
“One cardinal lesson of the pandemic is that distinctions between diplomacy and overseas development are artificial and outdated,” he said.
“And yet today a dividing line between aid and foreign policy runs through our whole system.”
He added: “For too long frankly UK overseas aid has been treated as some giant cashpoint in the sky that arrives without any reference to UK interest.”
The government’s commitment to spending 0.7% of GNI on overseas development is understood to remain in place.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the announcement was “a distraction” from how poorly the government is handling the pandemic.
“I want to see Britain as a moral force for good in the world, a force for global justice and co-operation, leading the world on global security, leading the global search for a vaccine, leading the fight against poverty, climate change and gender inequality,” he said,
“We don’t achieve that by abolishing one of the best performing and important departments.”
Labour former Dfid minister Hilary Benn said Johnson’s language shows he has “no understanding” of how UK aid helps the world’s poorest.
The move was also criticised by some Tory MPs.
Former development secretary Andrew Mitchell, seen as an ally of Johnson, said closing Dfid would be a “quite extraordinary mistake”.
In a statement to the PA news agency, the former cabinet minister said: “First, it would destroy one of the most effective and respected engines of international development anywhere in the world .
“Second, many of the senior figures who are key to Britain’s role as a development superpower will likely leave and go elsewhere in the international system – at a stroke destroying a key aspect of global Britain.
“Third, it is completely unnecessary as the prime minister exercises full control over Dfid’s strategy and priorities through the National Security Council.”
Former defence minister Tobias Ellwood meanwhile questioned the timing of the announcement during the coronavirus crisis and before the planned defence, security and foreign policy review.
He told the Commons: “I am concerned about the timing of this because there is an enduring emergency that must be the government’s priority.”
The prime minister stopped short of axing DfID at his reshuffle in February.
But the appointment of several ministers to joint DfID-Foreign Office jobs fuelled speculation a merger was still on the cards.
Sarah Champion, the Labour MP who chairs the Commons development committee, said the UK’s humanitarian work was “now in jeopardy”.
“Merging these departments may seem attractive short-term with possible administrative efficiency gains, but in the long run, we will have shot ourselves in the foot on the world stage,” she said.
Daniel Willis, from the campaign group Global Justice Now, said it was a “terrible decision”.
“This is bad news for the fight against global poverty, and good news for suppliers of corporate drinks parties in foreign embassies,” he said.
“DfID has been far from perfect, but its formal independence from the Foreign Office has offered some protection from aid money being treated as a slush fund for business interests. Now that’s been swept away – Empire 2.0 here we come.”
Danny Sriskandarajah Oxfam GB chief executive, said the move was “scarcely believable” Johnson had scrapped DfID “at a time when decades of progress are under threat from Covid”.
“With half a billion people at risk of being pushed into poverty the UK should be stepping up to protect lives and but is instead choosing to step back,” he said.
“This decision puts politics above the needs of the poorest people and will mean more people around the world will die unnecessarily from hunger and disease.
“The Foreign Office may be excellent at diplomacy but it has a patchy record of aid delivery and is not as transparent as DfID. To be a truly ‘Global Britain’ we need to do more to live up to our values, not turn our backs on them.”
Matthew Saltmarsh, senior external relations officer at UNHCR UK, the UN’s refugee agency, said: “DfID has been one of the most important global humanitarian donors for many years, offering vital assistance to vulnerable refugees and displaced people globally.
“UNHCR has always enjoyed a close and effective financial and strategic relationship with DfID, and we expect that this will continue with the FCO in future.”